BALTIMORE — Restaurants are the backbones of communities across the country. They bring us to the freshest bodies of water, different countries, and the most unique spaces without leaving the comfort of our neighborhoods. Three years after the start of the pandemic, restaurants are still fighting to stay alive.
A year ago, we visited Baltimore to check in on restaurants that never received their funds from the government's Restaurant Revitalization Fund, and now, a year later, we are checking in.
Every restaurant has something different their customers always come back for. Here in Baltimore, it's likely you'll find it to be seafood. However, those signature flavors disappear if a business can't stay afloat. The Local Oyster is one restaurant that worries about its future.
"The Local Oyster started in 2015. We have been shucking oysters and serving crab cakes for the last seven years," said Patrick Hudson, one of the owners. "We were not generating any revenue; we were simply incurring losses and debt throughout the entire pandemic."
The Local Oyster has already had to close one of its locations in Arlington, Virginia. The restaurant's last spot remains standing, but shakily.
"Thinking about business before COVID is sort of like thinking about college; it was just a haze. It's like I can't even really remember what it was like. It's just so different," Hudson said.
Hudson says they are one of the thousands of businesses who saw their approval for the restaurant revitalization fund revoked last year. Congress provided $28.6 billion in grants, but funding dried up and two-thirds of the restaurants that were approved for funding received nothing.
"What that does is it leaves the local oyster in a position where we have hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt going forward, and to be honest, I don't know how sustainable that is. I don't know if that's going to last," Hudson said.
It's been over a year since that bad news was delivered, but the ripple effects of the pandemic continue to affect them every minute, of every day.
"And it's kind of surreal and people will come up to me during service and say, 'Well, I'm really glad you survived the pandemic' and I just have to shake my head," Hudson said. "We're gonna be struggling with the impact of the pandemic for the next generation of restaurant owners."
Damye Hahn runs Faidley's Seafood just a few minutes down the road.
"It would be like equating you to having a year and a half worth of mortgage payments that you haven't been able to pay, and all of a sudden, you get a job. Well that you're gonna be able to pay your mortgage, but that year and a half of mortgage payments is still hanging out there," Hahn said. "We just felt like the hits just kept coming and once we thought everything was beginning to get better than this incredible inflation hit. And it has been difficult again."
They've been in business for more than 130 years. Yet, these last few have been unmatched.
"We've had to raise prices. We've had to cut items off the menu that we can't carry anymore because they are just too expensive," Hahn said. "Fishing, it's been terrible to try to get fish because the poor guys, all their boats are diesel, and the diesel is outrageous. Fish and seafood have gone up dramatically. Some of it two and three times what we paid in 2019."
These are the kinds of roadblocks that can change a restaurant's identity.
"We consider ourselves really ambassadors of the Chesapeake region, so we make sure that we gave local fish, local crab, local oysters, real local seafood," Hahn said.
It worries Hahn about the future of the industry.
"This industry is so important because we tell the story of the Chesapeake, but there's restaurants that tell stories of the farms and other industries," Hahn said.